In “Sage on the Mountain,” Vietnamese writer Đỗ Bích Thúy reveals the little-seen world of a Tay ethnic minority village in the northern province of Ha Giang near the Chinese border. The protagonist, Dzin, has returned to visit her aged mother, a war widow who feels caught between the old ways and the new.
Ma and my nephew, Sinh, met me at the fork where the trail turned up the slope that led to the house on stilts. It perched precariously above everything else, old, obsolete, tiny. Any time I remember something about my mother, I also see that house with its nine stairs where my wobbly legs first toddled into the life full of storms I had just returned to.
My eyes suddenly blurred. I was confused. “Ma! You’re healthy? Good God, I was so worried!”
“If you knew I was in good shape, you wouldn’t have come back, would you, Dzin?”
“Look . . . I beg you, Ma. Don’t make up stories like that. I came, didn’t I? Don’t you love me?”
My mother turned away, silent. She sighed gently, but it pained me as if a wind were twisting through my chest. Sinh hugged my neck, pressing his runny nose against my cheek.
“Auntie, Grandma’s gone senile.”
“Don’t be rude!”
“It’s true! Dad said so.”
My parents had two children, me and my younger brother, Dzan. My father sacrificed himself for the country when I was just ten years old, and Ma stayed in my grandmother’s house to help take care of her and her flock of little ones. Then, seemingly all at once, Grandma died, Pa’s younger brothers and sisters all got married, I left, and Dzan got married and moved out of the house. It was like Ma was all by herself again. Fortunately, Dzan married a girl from our village, and since Sinh’s birth, Ma’s at least had this small comfort.
Ma went ahead, her hand in Sinh’s as they slowly climbed the slope. I couldn’t believe it—could my mother really be so stooped already? It was the mark of time, starkly changing my mother’s body without deliberation, without warning. Her legs also seemed out of her control, and the path seemed longer, steeper, more uneven. In the old days, on this very same path, I would sit Dzan on a palm leaf and hurtle down, screaming and dragging him behind. Once, we both fell down it, tumbling again and again, our faces digging into the sandy soil, both of us trying not to cry out. Grandma knew, but she didn’t let Ma punish us. Dzan told me later: “Even then I felt sorry for Ma. She couldn’t even raise her kids the way she wanted.” He meant it as a criticism of Grandma. My grandmother had a reputation in Ta Coong as a terrible in-law. But she stayed with Ma all the way up till the day she died, saying she couldn’t bear living with any of her own sons or daughters.
At the house, my sister-in-law was just coming home from our terraced paddy. Dropping her bundles of harvested sticky rice plants at the bottom of the stairs, she exclaimed: “Dzin, you’re back! I almost didn’t recognize you. Each time you’re even more beautiful—oh, you’re really going to make our village boys suffer!” She smiled, her dimples deep in her cheeks. My sister-in-law was four years younger than me. The day she married my brother, the boys of our village got so drunk many of them could not get back to their own houses. People in Ta Choong said that because Dzan could read and write he was better than the other suitors, and her father agreed to give her hand for just thirty, even though a beautiful girl like my sister-in-law could easily have fetched a hundred. One hundred silver coins, one hundred kilos of chicken, one hundred kilos of pork, one hundred liters of corn whiskey; if not from a wealthy family, a boy might work until his death without fully repaying the bridal debt. My first day of having a sister-in-law put me in high spirits; I could finally have some peace of mind when I was away from home. And it was as if she had been born to be an in-law in my family. She even ate just like my mother. In her, Ma had another daughter—the one she actually wanted, not the one I was. I could never hear what my mother needed. I rebelled. I went away. There were so many times I felt exhausted from living and working in a foreign land and I wished I could bury my face in my mother’s bosom and cry. But still I stayed far away from my mother, far away and for a long time.
The whole load of rice plants was about four big bundles, but my sister-in-law just swung it onto her shoulder and trotted up the stairs, leaving behind nine wet footprints, firm and steady. Taking one of the bundles of rice plants, she deftly flipped it back and open, spreading it out like a flower on the drying floor at the gabled end of the house. Several dozen bundles had already been laid out.
“Looks like you’ve harvested a lot of sticky rice this year,” I said.
“Yes, a lot, a bumper crop,” she said slyly. “Plenty to cook for your wedding party. But will you ever come home to get married, sister Dzin?”
“These days no one wants to marry a twenty-six-year-old, you dear girl. I’m an old maid already.”
She smiled sweetly and said, “A tall tree is for strong climbers, sister Dzin.”
I put away my suitcase, took the bamboo shoulder pole, and followed my sister-in-law to the terraces to bring home the rest of the harvested rice. She walked very fast despite the thorn bushes snagging her calves. “This year everybody abandoned their terraces to go down the mountain to farm the lowland paddies. Even sticky rice seedlings can be transplanted down there, and lots of new types of rice can be threshed, so we don’t have to pound any more. But Sinh’s grandma said we still had to plant a few grains of the old sticky rice to eat at home, to make full-moon cakes, and to save for your homecoming.”
Piles of harvested plants lay scattered along the terrace. Soon, when the rice stubble dried out completely, a fire would be lit to burn the stalks to the ground and then a new crop would be started. The afternoon sun fell on the golden yellow mounds of rice plants and on the gleaming velvet forests of oak and chestnut in the distance. A breeze crept over the mountains sweeping with it the smell of kitchen smoke from the silvery houses of the village of the Phu La.
A boy with a dirty face was driving a crowded herd of goats down from the mountaintop. When he passed me, he suddenly stopped, his eyes wide with curiosity. I gave him a friendly smile and said, “You there, what’s your name?”
He stared at me blankly.
“Your house is near the spring isn’t it?”
I asked because when I waded across the stream at the entrance to the village, I saw a house with several rows of sheds nearby that looked like a goat farm. But the boy didn’t speak. He just made some quiet unintelligible sounds. Then he thrust a handful of dark purple grass toward me, stuck out his tongue, and turned away, cracking his whip above the goats. My sister-in-law whispered: “That’s Cam, the mute boy. Maybe you don’t remember. In the old days when you were still at home, he usually brought fish to sell to Ma. Now he lives at different houses a few days at a time. He’s nearly twenty, but it’s like he doesn’t grow up. What did he give you? Sage? He must’ve gone really far up the mountain if he’s coming home this late.” Now I recognized the familiar scent wafting up. This spicy, sweet, ever bitter scent had stayed with me, keeping me rooted to my whole peaceful childhood. It was so simple, but since I’d returned home, I had been unable to figure out what was missing and making me feel so unstable and empty. Cam’s bunch of sage began to wilt with the heat.
After the sun went down, Dzan came home carrying an oilcan on the back of his motorbike. He looked much older with his skin dark from work. And people say commune officials are idle . . . . On the dinner tray we had soup made with bamboo shoots and frog meat, a chicken roasted with lemon, and sage fried with a vinegary fermented rice extract called mẻ. Looking at the disk of cooked sage, I felt hungry but did not dare to take any with my chopsticks. I was afraid to eat it.
My sister-in-law was surprised—“Why did you say you liked sage?”
“I do,” I said, “but . . .”
“But it’s been so long,” said my mother in an angry, hurt voice, “so long without eating anything bitter like this, you’ve forgotten how.”
I was silent. Dzan repressed a sigh. On the wooden tray, the disk of fried sage wavered from my sight as I felt a roar from the back of my mind, echoing the sounds of a flood-rushing waterfall, of the forest trees’ bark cracking in the dry season, of the little goats bleating at their mothers, of the winter winds gusting on the roof of the house. That year . . . .
The heavens had made the land dry up, and I followed Ma carrying bamboo tubes over two mountains, half a day’s journey from Ta Choong, just to get to a small puddle of water full of moss. It was bitter cold. White frost sparkled in the air. The trees were full of dying leaves, the pumpkin creepers in the garden all dried up before giving fruit, and the radish seeds Ma had sown a month before never sprouted. Without pumpkin or radish, our village didn’t have any vegetables for winter. One day, two days, then a month, every meal just grated cassava with salt. Dzan sobbed convulsively, making Grandma and then Ma cry. That evening Ma went to the garden and gathered a handful of sage. Grandma said, “Don’t risk it, mother of Dzin.” My mother wavered a moment, then said, “The goats can eat it, we can too.” Without vegetables for so long, everyone had cold sores. But sage had always been baked over a hot stone and used only for aromatherapy. No one ever ate it.
Ma boiled the sage, then fried it with mẻ. Mẻ was sour, and salt was savory, but the cooked sage remained bitter. I made the effort to swallow a few sprigs of the sage, but Dzan spit it out immediately and cried again. Eventually, however, we began to regain our strength, and as we gradually got used to it, the pains in our insides went away. Grandma took some of the cooked sage to our neighbors. Then the whole village followed our example. The more the villagers picked, the more the sage grew, despite the winter winds ravaging the earth. On the terraces, in the garden, even under the floor where the dried-out water barrel sat warping, sage could be found everywhere, compensation for the severity of the earth and sky.
Sinh had already curled into sleep, exposing his chubby round belly to the fire. My mother took up an unfinished piece of net to weave, and my sister-in-law made a pot of rice bran porridge while threshing the sticky rice at the same time. Dzan sat smoking his pipe. As the pot of bran porridge began to bubble on the stove, Ma raised her voice: “Dzan! Tell your sister what you wanted to say. You expected her to come home more often!” My sister-in-law said deliberately, “As a commune official, you have to talk to outsiders all the time, how hard can it be to talk to your own sister?” Dzan squirmed and spluttered, “Dzin’s staying a while so I can say it tomorrow. I’ll let her rest first.”
“I’m not staying for very long,” I said. “One or two days and then I’ll have to go. I’ve still got a lot of work down there.”
Dzan was like that. With outsiders he had no patience, but he had endless respect for his sister. Since childhood I had always had power over him. Not that I wanted it. My father was the head of our family and he had only one son.
Dzan gave Ma a hard look, but she showed no response. It turned out he was having difficulties with her, over the new and the old. The commune’s cadres had been urging all the villagers to adopt new social and cultural conventions that required changing some ways of living and eating. More than one tradition had been deemed unhealthy or obsolete. But Dzan, one of the community exemplars, came up against Ma as if he’d stumbled over his own doorstep. It was awkward and problematic for sure. He didn’t know if my being at home for a few days would help or not.
Ma announced it was time for bed, then opened the trunk and took out my clothes from when I hadn’t yet left home. “Still know how to wear them?”
“Yeah, but with my hair short like this I don’t think I can wind the turban.”
My mother sighed. “You’re so grown up now, I could never keep you home. Not even the forests or the high mountains could stop your feet from walking away. Later, when I die, will you come back to Ta Choong? What kind of person will you marry, Dzin? Why don’t you bring someone here so I can see his hands and face? Are you scared he won’t respect you, or your home? I might never know how big or small a cup of wine my son-in-law will offer.”
I burst into convulsive sobs. For a long time, I hadn’t cried like that. I hadn’t known what to say to Ma when I left to follow my own path, when I struggled to escape the dim and the immense and the solitary, when I was afraid to fall into the expectations of being a mother or a sister-in-law. How could I explain anything in a way that would please my mother’s heart? I held Ma’s tiny cold body tightly. Where was her warmth, her vitality? Where were the full breasts of the mother? Where was the hair that smelled of rice, of pungent sage, of the savory aroma of burning grass?
It was a quiet night. Water murmured softly in the bamboo pipe. I had no idea how many times since I left that Dzan had been forced to replace that pipe. All at once the geckos began to chirp anxiously. I teared up remembering Pa. When my father was still alive, he caught some geckos to raise at home. If you release a few young geckos on the roof during a rainy day, they’ll stay there and never leave. The family of geckos grew to nearly a dozen, became totally used to humans, and with staring eyes would crawl back and forth over the threshold. Days when an odd number of geckos chirped would be sunny, evens would be rainy. Pa followed that forecast to arrange all our family affairs. When the border conflict broke out, our family evacuated together, leaving only my father behind to lead the commune militia. We did not return home until the ceasefire. My father had sacrificed himself. Our old house had been ravaged, going gray with mold, the family of geckos long gone. Grandma began to cry, saying they must’ve followed my father. But this night, the geckos were calling again. I didn’t know if any of them were the descendants of our old gecko family. I counted again and again but could not tell if the chirps were even or odd. My mother complained that in recent years the weather had swung erratically between sun and rain, our crops sometimes thriving, sometimes lost.
“Dzin,” whispered my mother, “are you still awake?”
“Yes,” I said. “What’s the matter?”
“Tomorrow I want you to talk to Dzan. Tell him if he doesn’t like living at home, he can move into the commune office.”
“Oh no! Why would you say that, Ma? Dzan would never dare do that.”
In a strangled voice Ma said, “For more than sixty years I have been like a stream flowing downhill. Soon I’ll reach the big river, soon I’ll follow your father, and now he asks me to turn back, to flow upstream. He . . . your brother Dzan . . .”
“But I don’t see what’s so complicated, Ma.”
“Ugh! Nothing! You’re just like him, Dzin. How many years have people lived in stilt houses with the buffaloes, horses, and geese kept under the floor, and now suddenly your brother demands the buffalo be brought out to the garden, even though she’s just had her calf and been sick night and day, unable to recover despite having plenty of salt. Geese used to stay put, and now for no reason, they’ve been driven out from under the floor and I have to go find them every morning, one goose here, another over there, all over the village. Both of you learned to sit and walk on the floor before you got all grown up like that, and now he brings home a table and chairs. He said we’d have frequent guests, so our manners would have to be top-notch. But who decides what manners are good? All the guests wear nice clothes but keep their shoes on in the house. When they sit down to have a drink of water, they turn their backs on our ancestral altar. If they see children in the village, they pat their cheeks and run their hands all over the children’s heads. But when I open my mouth, he tells me to tear down our wooden house and build a new tile-roofed house. When I was sick, I asked him to slaughter a goat and get a shaman to chase the ghost away, but he just shook his head and gave me a handful of red and green pills. Now that he’s so smart, he wants us to follow the lowlanders in all we do. I don’t need it. I don’t want to have a child like that. I’ll die right here.” Ma’s fragile chest heaved as she cried without tears. At her age she had already shed every drop of human suffering.
After a long while, Ma began to stir, slipping out of my arms and pulling back the blanket, waking me. “It’s so late, Ma. Where are you going?”
“Go back to sleep. I’m going to check on the calf. I told Sinh’s mother to pile dried rice husks to bank the fire, but I bet she forgot.”
Earlier that afternoon, Mr. Tao from Ngam Dang Vai had come and asked to buy the newborn buffalo when it grew up a little. White buffaloes can’t be used for plowing because it’s taboo. But it was a pity to sell the calf, and a pity for the mother, too. So even though Mr. Tao said he wouldn’t take it home for a long time, Ma still hadn’t agreed to take the money.
I could not sleep. The later the night grew, the colder it was. The weather here was like that; no matter how sunny the day, no matter if it dry-roasted the roof thatch a hand-span deep, the night was still cold. The blankets were never put away. The blanket I pulled to my chin was heavy. It smelled of memories.
During her engagement, when my mother was sixteen, she spent a whole month weaving this blanket and a scarf and some dresses. She told me their first night together was very cold, but she absolutely refused to share the same blanket with Pa, forcing him to go out to the kitchen fire and sit smoking his pipe until morning. My mother came to her husband’s house empty-handed, owning almost nothing because her father died very young and Ma had to live with an aunt and uncle. So she was like the cat crouching in fear near the kitchen of her husband’s family. From morning to night she never looked up. At meals she never dared to eat her fill, and so at eighteen, she was even smaller and skinnier than when she’d married. My older sister was born and lived less than a month before dying of pneumonia. Another ten years later I was born . . . .
In the mountains winter always comes early. When the first leaves of the peach and plum fall, the spring begins to go dry, and the water flow falls beneath the layer of white pebbles. Winds from the canyons rush down, bringing the chilly air of the stones and rice leaves. The sage begins to dry, its roots clinging to the soil, hardening and turning dark brown in the frost. Many days, weeks, even months sometimes go by without sunlight, and in the middle phase of the moon, night is merely dim. This is the time of the least work during the whole year. Girls stay at home spinning linen; their cheeks warm by the fire and become a bright and cheerful red. Out on the terraces, only barley can be planted. Grains of barley are not as delicious as corn or rice, but the barley flowers are beautiful. The colder the weather, the brighter pink and green they are. The whole mountain range, with the terraces of one family connected continuously to another, flares in the colors of the barley flowers, outshining the sky. A family’s whole terrace planted with barley yields only half a basket of grain, but all families plant it. There’s nothing to it. Harvest the corn, the weather turns cold, then sow the barley seed. Grass can’t grow, and the barley sprouts up very green; no one leaves soil unplanted.
Then the time comes when the horses clop at the gable, the pear trees bloom flowers white as snow, and spring has just arrived. Fathers wear sheathed knives and go out from their houses to search the village to see who has the biggest pig to share to celebrate Tet. Spring has come already but it will still be cold until March or April. Children driving cattle down the valley are not yet ready to leave their straw fire-starters at home; all have chapped faces. Only the soil begins to break up and soften. Cows and goats can eat fresh grass and water begins to flow in the bamboo troughs again. After Tet, sometimes the festival of one village overlaps the festival of another and so the celebration can last up to a month. The markets teem with boys and girls dressed beautifully, wearing bands of silver and shopping less but watching each other more. A long time ago, my father saw my mother with her hair wound in a turban at a market like that.
Coming back in, Ma didn’t return to bed but instead sat by the fireplace, poked the coals to rekindle the fire, and brought out the net she’d been working on. The flickering firelight shone on Ma, on her silver hair, and on her wrinkled face like something both real and unreal. A fear from nowhere rushed into me. The image of an open coffin with Sinh and his friends jumping in and out to play appeared clearly in my mind. My mother had prepared for the longest journey, to the hereafter, some five or six years ago. Three goats exchanged for a huge chestnut log that Dzan dragged home with the buffalo.
I went out to sit with Ma. A moment later the rooster crowed and my sister-in-law also got up, standing on tiptoe to reach the flat winnowing basket of salt drying on the smoking shelf above the fire. The upcoming July full moon would be a big feasting day. Even in the poorest family, children would have new clothes. In each house there would be mincemeat pastries, banana cake, and steamed red or purple sticky rice. When I was little, I used to make Dzan follow me and my friends all the way to Khuoi Nam to meet with other children to play games of sticks and spin the top. When we got hungry, we could run into any house and be given enough cakes to eat our fill. July was normally a rainy month but on the day of the full moon it stopped. Men went drinking at their friends’ houses, and sometimes got so drunk they did not come home for several days.
My sister-in-law said, “This July full moon, you’ll have to come home for sure! The last two July full moons, we made so many cakes it took weeks to eat them all up. Ma was worried that if you came back home and brought friends, we wouldn’t have enough, so we just kept using more flour and more bananas . . . .” I looked at Ma. I wanted to ask if she just always wore an angry face but secretly really did love her daughter, but she seemed not to notice anything.
When it was not yet light enough to see someone’s face, Dzan got up to leave, saying he had a meeting at the district office. Dzan looked at me like he wanted to say something, then hesitated and left with his briefcase, the sputter of his Minsk engine fading away. My brother’s sad face from when we were kids scrambling for each baked cassava kept tormenting me. It was rumored that people wanted Dzan to work in the district office, but he didn’t want to go. Dzan was, unlike me, tied to his birthplace and could never leave even though he had had many opportunities to rise up. I felt both sorry and grateful for Dzan; he shouldered part of my responsibility for Ma, and surely my father’s spirit was also happy.
Sinh got up, and without washing his face, pulled me down the stairs. “We have to go find the geese or Grandma will scold Pa.”
“Where should we look?”
“I know where. Let’s hurry!”
Sinh ran, pulling me to the stream where the water wheel was pounding up and down. The flock was indeed sleeping there, all with one foot up and their heads under a wing. Unwillingly roused, they made a huge racket. In my village, every household raises geese to protect the house. With just two geese it was all right to open the gate and go out to work the whole day.
When we returned home herding the geese, my mother was waiting at the foot of the stairs. “Why aren’t you wearing a coat, out so early in the morning, Sinh?”
Shrewdly, he ignored her. “I went with Auntie Dzin to fetch the geese. They are very obedient, Grandmother. They just need a little place outside near the water trough, that’s all. Oh, Grandma,” he said, “Grandma, don’t scold my Pa, don’t be angry with him anymore, my poor Pa. Grandma! Grandma, please agree. Just give me a nod.” The boy nodded several times. My mother looked at him, a twinkle in her eye that seemed close to a smile. Sinh was just like my brother, from his dark skin and small eyes to his wavy locks of hair. The spitting image of Dzan twenty years ago. It seemed like Sinh was trying to do what his father had struggled with for a long time but did not know how to manage. And my mother trusted him. Perhaps because she could still pick him up and hold him, even as her own children had spread their wings to fly so high and far away.
At the foot of the stairs lay a huge blue stone, large enough for four or five people to stand on. My father had dragged it from the edge of the stream after a big flood. It was on this stone that I stood with my father for the last time, listening to his instructions with tears pouring down my face until I finally let go of his shirttail. I can’t remember how many times since then I’ve stood in that same spot, facing up to the soaring Tay Con Linh mountain range wreathed with white fog, feeling a warmth, a certain vitality that I can step confidently into the world and into my life.
The sun rose. Red like a halo of fire. Signaling a very sunny day. With sun like that, in just three days the sticky rice would be dry, ready to be placed on the smoking shelf. Every year after the harvest, the shelf running from one end of the house to the other was always packed full of rice and corn. Ears of corn tied into knots dangled below, rice piled above. In good years, when all the rice from the previous year had not yet been eaten, the new rice would be put on top. My mother used to say in the old times at my father’s parents’ house there were bundles of rice older than the youngest uncle.
A bell tinkled outside along with the sound of heavy steps. It turned out to be the mute boy, Cam, herding goats up the mountain. He stopped at the gate of my house, waiting for my sister-in-law to drive out our goats. I said, “I’ll go with him.”
“What for?” asked my sister-in-law. “He can tend the animals by himself. Besides, it’s really far, Dzin.”
“It doesn’t matter how far,” I said. “I’ll get there. I want to go find some sage.”
“Then tell him to get it for you. There’s no need to go and get tired.”
“No, I want to do it myself.”
Ma grumbled, “In the old days, sage sprawled everywhere, even to the ground under the house, and even begging you I couldn’t get you to eat it. How come you’re so hungry for it now?”
Cam’s face lit up. His eyes twinkled, his face suddenly both happy and sad. Maybe always being alone, he often felt this way. We walked up toward the rising sun. Still behind the mountains, its rays looked like the blade of an enormous paper fan, reflecting upward. The goat path grew steeper and steeper; mosquito larvae wriggled on the scattered yellow leaves soaked in dew. The higher the path led, the gloomier the forest became. In forests like this, kids busy playing wouldn’t know when night fell. Overhead, the canopy of leaves was thickly knit, and filled with the whirring of bees. It was hard for me to keep up with Cam. The goats needed no urging to run ahead, scouring the dense, thorny bushes.
And then I was standing on top of one of the most majestic mountains of the Tay Con Linh range. The wind gusted as if it wanted to sweep me flying high into the air. And there, bursting out before me, intense green, deep purple, silvery white, drifting like waves, the whole mountainside was alive with fresh young sage that had just awoken from the blanket of fog. I rushed into it without thinking, lowering my face down to it, half-dreaming half awake, as if transported back to the years of so long ago. Those years sometimes seemed to give way to the fast pace and constant struggle of modern life. I met my father there. He was still strong and whole. I wrapped myself in his warm embrace.
I had returned to the place I was born, the place where the sun rises late and sets early.
I’d come home to the high mountains.
“Ngải Đắng Ở Trên Núi” © Đỗ Bích Thúy. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Nguyen Hung and Charles Waugh. Forthcoming in Wild Mustard: New Voices from Viet Nam, to be published by Curbstone Press in 2017. All rights reserved.